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I used to be a hairdresser in a beautiful jewel-box salon frequented by people who were, in fact, made of money. At least made by it. I didn’t always know who they were, but the old party standby, “So what do you do?” might yield “I own a bank” or “I just got disinherited from one of the largest American fortunes because of my coke problem,” or sometimes just an eye roll because I should already know.
It was best not to ask, and for me, it was often best not to know. When I knew someone was famous, I was not cool about it, and things could get weird.
One client, Donna, was a reserved, petite woman with a bit of a Southern accent and a great chestnut bob that fell right at her earlobes and cut a surprisingly intimidating look. She knew as well as I that she would look about 12 if she let her hair get too long or cut bangs. Even though when she arrived every six weeks or so, she looked like she could be wearing sneakers that lit up, I was a little scared of her.
We’d talk about the normal stuff: movies, restaurants, how she was staying at her friend’s carriage house on the Upper West Side working on some writing. I had the vague notion that she was a novelist, but I never pressed it (these were the freewheeling days before Googling, when you had to actually try to find things out).
One day, I read in a magazine that film rights to Donna Tartt’s first novel had been optioned by Gwyneth Paltrow and that her second novel would be coming out in a few weeks. Huh, my bob client was also named Donna Tartt. How ‘bout them apples? I went straight to the bookstore and read "The Secret History" in a sitting.
When I saw Donna Tartt the next time, I gushed about her book, hoping my new fandom might break some ice. When I mentioned the movie, she looked at me as though I’d thrown a pickax through our formerly anonymous and slightly banal relationship, and I felt a little bad about outing her. Maybe she thought I was mum about her fame because I was cool, but she was wrong. My silence was due entirely to ignorance.
“So your next book is coming out soon?” I asked, still hoping my interest would magically transform her from client to best, best friend.
“Yep. How’s your boyfriend?” Subject change. Foiled. I reluctantly took the hint and returned to our standard fare of chat.
Once her hair was done and dried, I began again. Straight hair like hers shows all flaws, and cutting it perfectly blunt is like organizing kittens in anti-gravity. I carefully combed the right side of her hair down, vigilant to snag all the strays, holding them in place with my comb. I snipped the slippery longer strands away, leaving her with a razor-sharp edge just skimming her earlobe. I turned my attention to the left side, carefully positioning my freshly sharpened shears along the line I wanted to cut.
So, you know when you’re cutting something, like a stack of papers or some fabric or a bunch of flower stems, and you hit a thick section that doesn’t want to cut? So maybe you decide to power through? How your scissors get to that thick part, and you just have to squeeze harder, maybe open and close the scissors for a sawing effect? That happens in haircutting. Sometimes you have a section that is too thick for scissors to handle all at once.
Normally, a conscientious hairdresser would stop and section the hair out to be able to cut more accurately, like clipping one flower stem at a time. The haircut was perfect except for this final little clump that was a millimeter longer than the rest, and instead of breaking it out into two snips, I decided to just squeeze harder and saw through.
And then the blood came.
“Ouch,” Donna said, rather stoically, as I wiped my scissors on the towel.
I had nicked skin before, everyone had. Usually my own -- the webbing between my first two fingers on my left hand is still decently scarred -- but also the occasional neck. Behind the ears on men was a tricky spot. A styptic pencil usually worked to stop any minor bleeding.
But when I wiped my scissors on the towel draped around Donna Tartt’s neck, I noticed a little white fleshy thing about the size of a newly clipped fingernail. It was flesh. It was Donna Tartt’s flesh and it was on my towel and not on her ear. A styptic pencil wasn’t going to fix this.
Not everyone knows this, but ears are loaded with capillaries. They bleed a lot and really don’t stop. I had to staunch it, but I couldn’t use the dirty hair-and-product covered towel around her neck, so I ran off to get a clean towel and a Band-Aid yelling, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
Maybe I needed a needle and thread. Maybe she wouldn’t notice. Maybe she’d think it was punk rock. Or funny. Or, shit. “I’m so, so sorry!”
When I got back to my station, Donna Tartt looked like an extra in a Tarantino movie. Blood ran down her neck into her hand as she tried to squeeze her earlobe together. My colleague Brian looked over from two chairs down and, smiling gleefully, mouthed, “Did you cut it off!?” I nodded at him, the blood whooshing out of my face as blood whooshed out of Donna Tartt’s head.
From my left, Jason stage-whispered, “Off off?” and I nodded again.
Donna Tartt calmly took the towel from me and held it to her ear. She took the Band-Aid from my hand, applied it, and said, “It’s really nothing. I’m sure it happens all the time.” Why wasn’t she more upset!? Part of her ear was now mixed in with the dirty towels in the laundry bin. I sprayed another clean towel with water and dabbed at her, trying to rub blood out of her hair, and yet, she barely responded.
“I’ve done that!” Brian called out. I knew he was trying to make me feel better, and it worked.
“Everyone does,” Jason said. Somehow, instead of feeling like "Sweeney Todd," I felt like I’d gone through a rite of passage. That years from then, I’d be the one calling out, “Oh, we’ve all done that!” to some other newbie with carnage-covered scissors in her hand.
Donna Tartt escaped to the front desk while I was calmed and patted by my colleagues. She didn’t need any comforting, but I needed a Xanax. (Luckily for me, in a place like that, everyone was holding.)
Just like normal, Donna Tartt came back from the desk to hand me a tip in a miniature white envelope.
“I’m so sorry,” I said again, hoping this time she’d see that I really meant it.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s almost stopped.” It clearly hadn’t. I handed her a fresh Band-Aid, since the first one looked like a diaper after strained beets. She was bleeding to death in the slowest possible way.
After she left, Brian leaned over to me and said, “You didn’t charge her, did you?”
I looked to his face, which expressed a mixture of concern and astonishment. I’d been so rattled that it hadn’t even occurred to me not to charge her. I ran out to the front desk, screaming, “Void! Void!”
Inconceivably, Donna Tartt stayed my client for a few more haircuts. Maybe it was immersion psychology to get over her new fear of haircuts, because she tended to get very quiet and still when I cut near her ears.
After a while, I just stopped seeing her. Her new book was out, another best seller. When I worked one odd Saturday and saw her in my co-worker’s chair, she said hello, as polite as always, and told me that since I usually didn’t work Saturdays, she’d found this other guy.
I noticed that he didn’t ask about her writing and that when she left, her hair was a couple of inches below her ears.